Stories

Oni Vitandham: The story of a Cambodian Princess

The Cambodian Princess who survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide

I have started the STORIES section of TEYXO STYLE with a mission: to inspire, enlighten and empower people all over the world by sharing amazing and powerful stories of brave people who stood up for their beliefs, fought for their principles, their life, overcame their fears and found in them the power to uplift others. I hope that these stories will inspire you, the reader, to open up and never give up, always seek opportunities and know that there is always a different way. The story of Oni taught me this and she is the embodiment of strength and courage and the living proof that love wins. I was so touched to receive her message one day saying that she would love to share her story and contribute to our mission of making a difference in the world. Oni’s story is so powerful and unfortunate still present as there are many children in the world nowadays that are prisoners of war zones and innocently die just because of politics. It is in our power to stop this by learning our history as humankind and understanding that we do have a voice if we stand united and work as a whole.

The year 1973…

1973. The Rolling Stones releases “Angie”. The popular films “Last tango in Paris” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” are launched. Elvis Presley is seen on a television special by more than 1 billion viewers across the world. Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, the most viewed tennis match in history, marking a great day for women and opening up doors for women in sports. US troops withdraw from Vietnam and the Vietnam War ends with a treaty of peace. But in Cambodia the harm couldn’t be undone…

The conflict in Vietnam has extended over its borders long before the war ended and this has easily made way for a new regime to install later in Cambodia. The civil war in Cambodia was fought between the military dictator freedom fighter Lon Nol, who was pro American, and the infamous Khmer Rouge who were supported by the North Vietnamese government. Although the United States government tried to weaken the Khmer Rouge by heavily bombarding the country and the area, they eventually stopped the bombing when they signed the peace treaty. And this made way for Khmer Rouge to take the power and begin their terrible regime…

Khmer Rouge taking control of the capital Phnom Penh in 1975

Khmer Rouge along with their leader Pol Pot was one of the bloodiest regimes in history. Pol Pot wanted to transform Cambodia in an agrarian-peasant version of the socialist doctrine, so everyone who seemed more intellectual was immediately executed. You didn’t have to be necessarily a doctor or a professor, you could just wear glasses or have a softer skin than a peasant and this was enough for a death sentence. The slaughter began and in the next few years more than 25% of Cambodia’s population of 10 million people were killed, being one of the cruelest genocides in history.

Khmer Rouge was taking photos of the victims, before killing them; photo from thedailybeast.com
Children in camps, photo from pri.org

Oni was born in these cruel times in a royal family, her father being a prince who was fighting the Khmer Rouge. Wanting to protect her, he hid her in a cave along with foster parents, as her mother died at birth. But in 1975, when she was just nine, Khmer Rouge soldiers found them and shot her foster mother, so she along with her foster father had to run and escape. The first years of her life are a puzzle of running, fears and so many foster parents and guardians that protected her and who sadly, she lost before she could hold on to. She has seen so many terrible things and lost so much by the time she was a teenager, but then she managed to reach to a UN refugee camp and later on to America. But even there, escaping the sorrows and damages of Cambodia, didn’t find the freedom and peace that she has hoped to regain…

I will let now Oni tell you her story through her own words…

Oni’s Story

Lara: Your story is so powerful and all these challenges that you have been through shaped the amazing woman that you are today, the heroine of now, but the price is tremendous and no child should fight for life. What offered you strength in all those moments of life and death? Was it the hope of something better or just pure survival instinct? 

ONI: Why God tests his children the way he does can be hard to understand until one reflects back upon it. When I look back at the experiences in my life so far, I am both amazed and humbled from God. I am amazed that any human being could have experienced so much pain, so much hunger, so much death, and so much destruction, especially as a child, and I am humbled by the power inherently in those who survive and overcome such trials. My Life was given to me to go through tribulation, and it was terrifying and at times it seemed hopeless, but without all those obstacles, without all that suffering, I would not be the woman I am today. I am proud to be this woman and I carry inside me the strength to show a passionate lifetime commitment to raising awareness of corrupt institutions, women right to defend at any levels and remind the influence woman do the right things for the world children and speak out what we can to engage the nation progress.

I have looked death in the face on more occasions than I can remember. I have witnessed people killed by bullets and bombs, beaten with sticks, smashed by hoes, humiliated and degraded. I have seen women raped and abused and young children slaughtered. I have stood on the edge of burial pits waiting for the final blow to fall that would consign me to an eternity spent rotting in an anonymous grave. I have lived in fear and desperation and eaten rats and garbage in order to stay alive. I have been cold and alone without a glimmer of hope. I have lost parents, friends, and loved ones, suffered beatings and abuse. I have tried to end my life more than once, but been unfortunate enough to fail each time. It seems  that  there is nothing horrible in the world that I have not experienced.

The most important lesson I learned throughout all the hardships I faced is this: You always have a choice in how you deal with the aftermath of an experience. You can become overwhelmed, sink into despair, and allow yourself to live life as a victim, or you can rise above the pain and consciously take your life to a higher level .

Living in the ruins of the Ancient city of Angkor Wat

Lara: I have read in an article that you have also lived alone at some point in the ruins of the Ancient city of Angkor Wat. Do you remember that time? How long was it and how did you manage to get food, water? 

ONI: I decided to sleep in Angkor Wat, and to live there as though I owned it. It was cold at night, though, and all I had to keep me warm was my sarong and striped towel. For a bed, I slept on a bare stone slab. Even so, I slept well and flourished in the peaceful environment. Every day, I stayed near the statues and even spoke with them in my dreams. They were full of magic and when they answered, they spoke directly to my heart. At times, it seemed as though they whispered of some great secret, still unknown to me, but try as I might to understand them, their words were gone when I awoke in the morning.

In reality, when I did wake in the morning, there was food — rice and water — placed in bowls near me. At first, I looked at the food warily, wondering whether it was safe to eat and where it came from. I feared that it might have been poisoned by an unseen enemy. Yet soon, my ravenous hunger won out and I devoured it. The rice was soft and tender and was seasoned with something I can only describe as divine. The bowls were refilled every morning, but I never discovered who it was that fed me. Every morning, I didn’t know who provided the food, but it was there for me to eat.

A long journey, I remember – about a month – that is the time that I have spent there, living and breathing into the fresh season of violence and personal strength in crisis to understanding everything around me. Thinking where I’m heading off, because that is really what I questioned; it was war, you fight to live and the feeling of hunger is close to death…

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, photo from pickyourday.com

The three “H”

Lara:  Have you ever seen your father in your childhood or do you know what happened to him? 

ONI: When I was with my first foster parents, we kept receiving visits from a man. At first, I didn’t know this wondrous visitor was my father until he grabbed, kissed, and hugged me very tightly as if he had terribly missed me. He took time to play with me and would teach me very powerful words in Khmer — Cambodia’s beautiful language. I remember his advice regarding three amazingly brilliant words. He told me I could have a bright future with the three “H” letter words: I am hungry for food, education, and success. Being humble has no relation to what position you have in life, be it president, wealthy millionaire, queen or king, or a janitor. Living a pure, unselfish life, and counting nothing as one’s own in an abundant society counted most. This moves one to be a kind, compassionate, and understanding person. The third and last H word, honesty, was and is indeed the best policy, and which can move mountains and influence the world. It is to speak from your conscience and morals. I enjoyed listening to my father who had a wonderful mind as a leader. It included loving all kinds of people, and without discrimination and prejudice against anyone. A wonderful, powerful “father and daughter” relationship existed between us. People said he got killed by the Khmer Rouge army in 1976. I have never known how my father got murdered. Sometimes my father’s story is a way to discover the truth, understand what is going on around the world.

Escaping to USA – “Amayreekaing”, how it was called

Lara:  How did you manage to get to the USA?

ONI:  I was living then with a foster family, the Touches. At some point, our family was moved to another camp, this one called Chumrum Chunbury, where we applied for immigration again. We had already been turned down twice. The United Nations workers asked the Touches to wait outside, while they kept me in the room to interview me. Mrs. Touch had told the worker that I was her real daughter and twins with her son.

This time I admitted that I was not her daughter and that I was adopted by them. Please let me go to live in the free country without fear, I silently prayed, not understanding what that really meant. I also prayed to God to please let me pass the interview. And the application was finally approved. I was overwhelmed and cried out loud. I gently looked at the UN workers who smiled at me happily, but I smiled at them with a sad face. Finally, I had made my way to a refugee camp and to America.

On November 13, 1983, at the age of seventeen after many years of living on the run or in refugee, military, and prison camps, without family, no shelter and with little food, I finally boarded a bus bound for the Bangkok airport. I was going to the country we Cambodians called Amayreekaing. Yes, I was going to the land of freedom. The family selected as part of a group of war victims to be flown to America, out of the generosity of the YMCA in Texas.

Lara:  Have you returned to Cambodia ever since? 

ONI: In February 2009, after an absence of almost thirty years, I returned to Cambodia. I had been seventeen years old when, as a frightened but determined young teenager, I had escaped Cambodia with the hope opportunity of finding a better life in America. Although I arrived in the U.S. with an adopted family, I was truly alone, and I remained alone for a quite a while. When I returned in 2009, I traveled by myself. I was both apprehensive and frightened of my journey. Little did I know that I would be landing at a small Phnom Penh airport. When I got off the plane, the only plan I had was to embrace the human condition at all levels of life. When I was walking out of the airport, Cambodian citizens looked at me with a gentle smile that made me feel warm and welcome in my homeland. I walked out of the door and saw a sign bearing my name, so I was picked up by a bodyguard. This was the journey that took me back to the land of hope and inspiration. I found Cambodia had never left me. 

When I returned, I found much of the country the same, but a big improved on the commercial building, but not on improvement on social changes of violation of human rights. There was still great poverty. Sex trafficking and drugs remained a problem. The poor in the rural villages barely had enough to keep themselves alive and the children ran around without shoes and often without proper clothing. My heart broke for my people. I had experienced so much change over the time I had been gone, but these people — my countrymen —  were still stuck living the same nightmare from which I had escaped. There was no overt war, but dissidents often disappeared or were found murdered. My people were still being oppressed by a regime that did not care for them and answered instead to pressures from external forces, especially, those of the Vietnamese government and other communist countries. No jobs for the poor people.

Jonas Hansel
Sunset grocery shopping – Phnom Penh.
Photo by Jonas Hansel
Baron Reznik
Bustling Phnom Penh – Phnom Penh.
Photo by Baron Reznik

The biggest challenge that I have ever faced was when people asked me what country I was from. I responded that I was Cambodian. But you have light skin, they would say. You are not Cambodian. You have light brown hair and brown eyes.

I am a daughter of Khmer, I told them.

Oni photographed by Robert Lachman
Oni photographed by Robert Lachman

Fighting for change and giving hope to children

Lara:  Please tell me more about the PUAAI Foundation for Cambodia

ONI: The Progressive United Action Association, Inc. (PUAAI), an international NGO (now defunct), challenged the Cambodian government to bring about sweeping social changes to Cambodian life. The PUAAI led the fight against the corrupt Cambodian government and the injustice and crimes it continued to commit against the Cambodian people. The PUAAI was established to challenge public policy that ignored this corruption, and to shine a light upon any and all crimes committed by the Cambodian government. In essence, the organization’s dedicated goal was to stand up against a corrupt and pernicious Cambodian government.

The PUAAI was also the first group to prepare and submit significant dialogue and evidence to the United Nations revealing the injustice and numerous crimes committed by corrupt Cambodian government leaders and officials against innocent Khmer people. It was then that I was invited to speak in different U.S. cities to hundreds and thousands in attendance.

Our first goal was to have English language schools built in Cambodia, which was approved by Hun Sen himself in 1996 and 2009.  PUAAI opened 17 schools and partner to build one university in Cambodia. Our platform was clear: a sincere commitment to democratic, universal human rights, and to secure a safe future for those who never dreamed of getting an education in Cambodia. Our members saw English schooling as the most necessary opportunity for children and people in Cambodia. They would be allowed to learn the English language for the first time in Cambodian history. I was able to inform Americans about the plight of the Cambodian people. I felt thrilled to contribute to bringing such positive change to children’s lives.

Oni bringing hope and light to children; photo from http://ghliterary.com

Lara:  Your story must be known and I think it is important for people worldwide to know the history of our world so that mistakes not be repeated and the children of tomorrow have a better chance at a better life. War is still present in so many countries and innocent people are dying. What do you think people should do to help and put an end to these atrocities? 

ONI: It really is impossible to envision who would ever want to hurt a child or murder any human being for that matter. Unfortunately, there are many countries or regimes that simply do not care about their future generations or the value of life. All I saw and experienced is only history repeating itself. It is all like what groups such as ISIS do today — indoctrinate children to hate western ideology and society so they want to violently go against it. ISIS brainwashes them to carry out suicide bombings and use machine guns.

Children have been caught up in terrorism, which leads only to prejudice and violence. ISIS looks upon vulnerable children as “money in the bank,” using them for slave and drug trafficking or raising them up to be terrorists. Children’s innate behavior does not lead them to stockpile weapons to cause mass destruction. They are brainwashed into doing it for someone else’s greed and money and for their own survival. An army keeps the indoctrinated children under close scrutiny. The only thing the children know is how to kill and hate. Total deprivation exists for them. No toys or games, no school, no lunch box, no running water, no bed to sleep in, and no medical supplies because of the dictator’s selfish greed for power and control. All the natural resources are used to benefit the military and the regime, not the people.

Human history is determined by what adults believe children should know from our schools or our homes, not from what happens in the clouds. Each of us must take full responsibility to end this violent culture embedded in mass movements, so children can grow up with faith in their own parents and peer groups and enjoy security and mutual love. They need to understand the power of non-violence and begin to connect with others in order to have real open communication and unity. We must make the world aware of how terrorist attacks are carried out as well as wake people up to the extreme misconception concerning child welfare throughout the world. Not everyone exists the way people in the West do with free education, opportunities create jobs, fair balance of injustice equity and health care. Most children grow up in poverty and must work from a young age to support their families.

Imagine today (2018) an estimated thirty million people being enslaved in the international sex industry and victims of human trafficking at the hands of corrupt governments. As well, about 80% percent of them are exploited as sexual slaves in various parts of the world. There is an existing link between global poverty, slave labor and sex trafficking that the world must be made aware of. It is the worst abuse of people in the history of mankind. According to a UNESCO report, children of all ages are abducted and sold around the world, and hundreds of thousands have died. Sex trafficking of children remains a monstrous problem in Cambodia, as well as in many other nations. In some cases, families knowingly or unknowingly sell their children into this horrible trade to pay off debts, but in many other cases the children simply disappear only to show up far from where their families can find them — in brothels that cater to the most depraved practices. My heart breaks for them.

All of us who listen to children also hear their daydreams of traveling their lands to find love and peace so as not to live in fear. This innocent voice of a child takes place inside the hearts and minds of adults, too. If we try to fully understand the importance of a child’s mind, we would see pure peace. A child is a gift like a beautiful song. As adults, listening to children, brings love and laughter that is with us, in the midst of turmoil, and which can bring unity. If we only allow ourselves to move beyond the hate. A normal magnificent beautiful life of a child is snatched from us many times over every second — snuffed out by racial conflict, tyranny, and war — and continue to degenerate into child sex trafficking, slavery, genocide, which remains widespread throughout the world.

We must open our hearts and minds to acknowledge the picture on an international level regarding our children in the twenty-first century. We need to take a stand when and where others cannot or will not. At that time in my life, there was nowhere on earth for us to escape. However, our spirits can now travel to memorialize these beautiful lost children, so we can keep the picture of our own children close to our hearts – with the goal of always bringing love, courage, and strength to them. I call all parents in the world to lend their voices to the heavens to heal all the hurting mothers and make them as angels who can speak out and fight for justice and spread their wings and the wings of their children to live free from fear.

By now, throughout my traumatic, horrific story, I hope that you have found in your inner soul the compelling evidence to compel you to care and hear the heart wrenching cries of humanity. If you are true to yourself and seek to listen to the inner voice of God, you will know to hear the sound of children crying amidst all the noise of the world. Then you will sense the weight of a child’s plight. I pray this journey with me through my traumatic upbringing has helped all readers to reach out to one child somewhere, sometime as needed.  I saw the murders and I have not forgotten who committed them.

We plea for the children of the world. 

Lara:  How do you feel now? What would you say to the women worldwide who may have had a similar experience as yourself?

ONI: Being able to love others as well as you love yourself, now that is true compassion with God. So no longer can hatred live inside you. Today, when I wake up, I have dreamt and experienced a deep feeling of Jesus peace and light because I now have a purpose to live for.

I feel certain that all will agree that the information provided here is crucial not only to upholding the standards of women democratic law and the values we cherish in any mother’s hearts, but also and especially, to maintain order and allow justice to prevail in the hearts of the many millions of women and children who crisscross the world to secure that dream of having a better life. I am among of those women, who are waiting for someone to give us the opportunity to speak the voices of the mothers everywhere.

Many situations arose that shed light on the abuse of women at that time. There is a need to create awareness among people across the world, especially about women who greatly suffered of war rape. With that, I thus continue to fight for the sake of humanity and for those who so greatly suffered and survived and response to protect the right of women. We must stop judging people, stop envy and jealousy and greed. We must find the root of the problems. We are women of good, free to have real dreams! Let’s empower women, embrace other cultures and bless women everywhere. We as women are lucky and helping each other to fight to save the world by giving each other voices and improve economic for the poor and creating business models to changes the world.

My own views today are simply to respect others. As a child, I never saw one as being right or the other being wrong because I wasn’t old enough to understand the real situation that caused them to make their opposing decisions. Forgiveness is a journey. When I got home from Cambodia, I went back to my daily routine. I believed that one had to see humanity in the face of the enemy. I’m not really a religious person, but for me forgiveness is about grace. Today, I can forgive, and tomorrow I can talk about my experience to globally empower children and women in the eyes of wisdom and peace. Without all this experience and turbulation in the past, I would not have gained the inside knowledge I have today. The lesson here is that without self-awareness, there can be no self-improvement.

From the Cambodian refugee Princess to the successful business owner of today

Lara:  You have worked a lot since you arrived in the USA to offer yourself an education, attending several high schools and college at California State University, getting a degree in Business Finance and now you are a successful business owner. You are launching next month Chandler Tea along with your daughter and I think this is such an exciting journey! Please tell me more about it, how did you come up with the idea?

ONI: Yeah, I worked from five in morning until midnight at the Donut shop. During the week, I tutored students from the local elementary schools in math (at which I excelled) and worked as housekeeper, taken senior citizens while attended college. The days were long and sometimes boring, so I had plenty of time to fantasize about what I would do if I didn’t have to work continually to take care of my rent payment.

Back then I dreamed to live like a normal kid, to have a family that provided me a safe home and shelter to comfort me. But I had none of those and I have never complained. I was blessed to be safe and I was daydreaming that some day I would like to create a business to help other victims…

When I was in Bangkok, Thailand, and again much later in life, in California, I was told by a doctor that I did not have long to live, because during the “Killing Fields” of the Cambodia genocide I developed a bone disease, because the food I ate and the water I drank were like a future death sentence upon me. Then when I was over thirty, I was dying with a breast cancer, my daughter only six years old at that time. So everything was like a sentence upon me…

When I was a teenager, I felt insecure about my looks and I hate myself. I was fat and ugly. I had low self esteem and no comfort about my body. I was not good enough to fit in as a social butterfly. Eight years ago, I received an email from a close friend. She made statements in the email that if I can discover reverse aging to get rid of sagging extra skin on our body, I would be the first the child survivor of war that becomes a millionaire. So, I spent time alone in the kitchen at my lab experimenting with homemade foods, testing all the veggies, fruits, and herbs that I ate as the best natural weapons, including friendly greens. I have been empowered by my nanny: when I was living in the Cambodian cave and jungle I was taught how to use all the natural plants, flowers, herbs, and seeds that grew nearby. I learned at an early age to appreciate the value of one thousand years of Ayurveda medicine and its ancient secrets kept from the world. Finally Chandler Tea officially was born, because lit of one candle light may save people!

Our website will soon be launched at www.chandlertea.com

I began taking my ingredients to the next level and formulating the second product which was my tea line. I learned that we can’t put a price on health. The key is living healthy, looking younger, and feeling great every morning! At the same time, I was 145 -165 pounds in weight and my daughter was 160 pounds heavy.

I don’t believe in diets. I believe using all- natural remedies in my products. Thus, my immediate goal is to bring Chandler Tea to Cambodia to help begin the process of true progressiveness, which can bring economic freedom and a great opportunity for people around the world.  We are Khmer and our country is Cambodia, so I envision and aspire to see our country and our people creating and producing our own products in order to have our own self-sufficient economy and be a flourishing nation of opportunity and success. Most importantly, to create jobs for people.

Imagine living under the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge genocide for over four and a half years. We didn’t have the right to worship God, listen to music, over labors or have freedom of speech. Our identities were also stolen. We changed our names and ages to remain hidden. This was the kind of life we had lived under the communist regime for years. Here in America we can create a life, can be self sufficient and live the American dream that we wish to pursuit to help other women to fight a good fight. 

Children are the best agents for the world peace. Mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers all want children to have the right to live freely, to be educated, and be protected from violence. Let us start a campaign for social justice before it is too late. Let’s create a voice expressing a united commitment to the entire world, to create hope and education for the children all over the world.  Part of the world does not realize the difference between hunger and affluence. Half the world is going to sleep without food, and malnutrition. My vision is simple, and it is currently focused on my own education.

For Eight years, I have labored long and hard to create three companies: Chandler Tea, and a cosmetic and food product business — all developed and pioneered to provide the very best in natural health products and nourishing foods. I believe these products hold the secret to providing a unique power of remedies, thus changing and reversing aging by restoring a youthful appearance to whoever uses the products. They clearly mark a breakthrough in ancient Eastern medicine and holistic products. They are both rejuvenating and health optimizing, using some of the best scientific innovations, along with the time-honored traditions of Cambodian traditional medicine.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *